Fertility can hinge on swimming conditions in the uterus

April 19, 2017

For a mammal's sperm to succeed, it must complete the swim of its life to reach and fertilize an egg. That's easier if it swims through water, not goo.

It turns out that both the male and female have a role in making that happen.

A Washington State University researcher has found that the uterus in female mice contains enzymes that can break down , making it less gel-like, more watery, and therefore easier to swim in. Scientists have previously thought semen is broken down by enzymes from the .

But writing this week in the journal PLOS Genetics, Wipawee Winuthayanon, an assistant professor in WSU's School of Molecular Biosciences, reports that also produce the , using estrogen to induce the process. They also saw that when a female mouse lacked a gene to make this happen, semen failed to liquefy in its uterus.

"Our studies provide the first evidence of how the interplay between semen and the female reproductive tract could impact fertility," the researchers write.

The study highlights an underappreciated complication in the physical changes that semen undergoes and the relative roles of secretions in both the male and female reproductive tracts.

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WSU researchers have seen how an enzyme in the uterus can make semen more watery, making it easier for sperm like these to swim towards the egg. Credit: Washington State University

"This information will advance research on semen liquefaction in the , an area that has never been explored," said the researchers, "and could lead to the development of diagnostic tools for unexplained infertility cases and non-invasive contraception technologies."

Winuthayanon's colleagues on the study are post-doctoral research associate Shuai Li, honors student Marleny Garcia and research assistant Rachel L. Gewiss.

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Washington State University researchers have seen how the lack of an enzyme in the uterus can keep semen in a gel-like state, making it hard for sperm like these to swim towards an egg. Credit: Washington State University

Explore further: The mating game is far more complicated than X and Y

More information: Shuai Li et al, Crucial role of estrogen for the mammalian female in regulating semen coagulation and liquefaction in vivo, PLOS Genetics (2017). DOI: 10.1371/journal.pgen.1006743

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